The first demonstration of the presence of widely organized Muslim religious brotherhoods in Egypt and of their deep impact on the populace, which they manipulated in the Mamluk period. On one day in 1321, the populace, incited and led by members of these brotherhoods, destroyed, pillaged, and burned over sixty of the main churches and monasteries in all the important cities and towns throughout the country—hence, the historical importance of this crisis not only for the history of Egyptian Christianity, to which it was a severe blow, but also for the long and interesting history of brotherhoods, particularly their influence on different layers of the population and their continuous political interference in Egypt.
In addition, this crisis indicates the scale of the political power of the populace, which one can trace from the Fatimid period, and its effect on other components of the social structure, particularly on Copts, a power that endured until the nineteenth century and that would take other forms later.
Undoubtedly, this crisis was not the only one of its kind and could be compared to others, particularly to an earlier crisis that resulted in the systematic destruction of a still greater number of edifices in the time of the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim at the beginning of the eleventh century. But in spite of the fact that the Mamluk crisis resulted in the destruction of a smaller number of churches, it has proved to have been historically much more important and its effects more serious.
In fact, the decision of al-Hakim was more or less the action of a bizarre, unpopular, and isolated caliph whose many instances of irrational behavior, the proclamation of his own divinity being but one example, were condemned by Egyptians and criticized by Arab historians. If, for demagogic reasons, he invited the population to attack churches, it was a relatively long campaign, and being an official movement, its effects have to be considered in the same way as other governmental decisions at that period, that is, against a background of skeptical acceptance by the population of the decisions of foreign rulers who followed one another as masters of the country and, in particular, of the oddities of al-Hakim, who acted erratically. And though the populace and certain members of his entourage profited from his policy, it was destined to be short-lived, as were his other schemes.
The Mamluk case, on the contrary, was the fruit of a deliberate plan and well-organized preparation of an active part of the population and profited from the laxity and the avidity of the governors and from the circumstances of the populace. The success of the action reflected a certain political development that rallied the rigorists; most of the jurists; and in particular the amirs and high officials who were looking after their rival interests. There was also the sultan Muhammad ibn Qalawun (1310-1341), who accepted the eruption of the populace apparently as a way out of the serious difficulties Egypt confronted at that moment.
It is just one more example of the old habit of governors of Egypt, especially weak and unpopular ones, of finding an easy scapegoat in the rich domain of intolerance against the Copts. This consensus no doubt gave the population the false idea that the events were ordered by the sultan. Al-MAQRIZI wrote that amirs told the sultan, who was alarmed by the spreading eruption, that it was not the work of man but the intervention of God’s will, since even the sultan could never have achieved the same result, had he ordered it. Al-Maqrizi, like other historians of his period, who all shared the rigorists’ point of view, went into ecstasies about the strangeness of the events, as if they had been miraculous.
All this explains how this crisis, which was in fact only one of a series of grave events that took place between the end of the thirteenth century and the late fourteenth century, came to have such serious and lasting effects. The sultan, who intended to punish the populace because it acted without his order, finished by agreeing to receive its cheering and to give it free rein.
As far as churches are concerned, the Mamluks apparently did not agree to reopen any church in return for the money paid by Copts or the rich gifts Christian sovereigns sent them, as in 1303. (Al-Maqrizi referred to a sum of 500,000 golden coins that was to be levied on Copts at the end of the crisis.) Later the Ottomans were more tolerant than the Mamluks, but it was not until the advent of the MUHAMMAD ‘ALI dynasty in the nineteenth century that the Copts became the beneficiaries of a more liberal attitude.
This crisis, like all crises of the Mamluk period in which Copts were involved, adds interesting material to the important dossier on religion and politics in Egypt. But one difference is to be noted in this case: whereas in other crises in which Copts were personally the target, where their rights, their properties, and their posts were attacked, no manifestly violent action is recorded, here the churches, the symbol of their identity, became the object of widespread violence. One thinks of the results of the persecution by the Byzantines when they confiscated Coptic churches and gave them to the Melchites.
The arrival of the new masters, who were trying to extend their new faith, must have underlined the importance of this symbol and rendered the question more delicate. This seems to explain why the alleged treaty that the Arabs concluded with the Egyptians contained a clause concerning the security of churches and crosses. But by the time of the rigorists and the mounting intolerance, the situation of churches must have become a problem. Their security, as well as the situation of Christians in general, began to be interpreted in a restrictive way, evolving into what was called the COVENANT OF ‘UMAR, which prohibited the building of new churches. During periods of tension, this interpretation was asserted by rigorists to deny the right of restoring decaying churches.
The rigorists took churches as a subject for their polemic works and fatwas (legal opinions) well before the end of the Ayyubid dynasty and, in particular, during the agitated Mamluk period. As early as 1243, in his Tarikh al-Fayyum (History of the Fayyum), al- Nabulsi gave a list of the churches and monasteries there, stating that his aim in recording them was to prevent Copts from building new edifices. Again during the crisis of the very first years of the fourteenth century, Qadi Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn al-Raf‘ah issued a fatwa authorizing the destruction of certain churches and would have executed it had he not been stopped by Qadi al-Qudah Taqiy al-Din Muhammad ibn Daqiq al-‘Id.
This same rigorist qadi, who was at one time a muhtassib (a jurist whose function was to see if the Muslim laws, or shari‘ah, were respected) of Cairo, was mentioned by al-Suyuti among the important theologians and authorities on interpretation and is famous for a book he wrote in 1308 called Al-Nafa’is fi Hadm al-Kana’is (Chronicles Concerning the Destruction of Churches). To the same polemic category belong the anti-Christian fatwas of the theologian and jurist Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328).
But nearer to the populace than the official clergy or the eminent rigorist jurists were the brotherhoods, whose members had a more direct influence on it. These brotherhoods, which have flourished in Egypt since the thirteenth century, had more or less the same political and religious attitudes as other brotherhoods that appeared in certain Muslim countries in the same period and used the same means to recruit members and to attract the population.
Apparently, it was owing to them that the hashish (Indian hemp) they used regularly became so widespread among the lower strata of the population that the Mamluk sultan Baybars had to prohibit its use. Al-Maqrizi spoke about a certain Kurani who used to send his followers from the same low social castes (pages, blacks, etc.) to the streets of Cairo at night to attack shops and even soldiers and incite them to revolt against the government.
The populace itself had already become a dangerous power in the social structure of towns. It was incited by the permanent economic difficulties and the continuous political disorder. Life had become difficult for the lower classes because of the effect of long wars, famines, epidemics, high taxes, and corruption. Many people were forced to leave villages for towns where work was not always available. At one time, the government had to assign poor people to be fed by rich persons or amirs. The political climate of the Mamluk period, with amirs plotting against each other and sending their armed bands of Mamluks to attack their rivals and sometimes the population and to sack and pillage shops, must have added to the difficulties and pushed the populace to join in or to riot, motivated either by revenge or hopes of benefiting from the pillage.
No wonder that the masses began to be feared and coveted by political powers in the Mamluk period. They were all trying to manipulate them and to use their eruptions. This also explains the evident consensus of all these political powers and religious circles with the populace not only during this crisis but also in later ones. It also explains why the power of the populace governed the streets of Cairo for a long time. The anti-Christian fatwas and polemics of the rigorists produced among these masses an atmosphere of continuous excitation, which could easily turn into outbursts against Copts.
In 1308 the Copts obtained from the sultan Muhammad ibn Qalawun permission to restore a decaying church in HARIT AL- RUM in Cairo, the Church of Saint Barbara. The restoration, which seems to have embellished the church, angered the rigorists, who complained to the sultan that a new part had been added to the edifice.
The sultan decided to send his officials to remove the new part, but the population, which had been informed, crowded around the church, while elements of the populace began to pull down the whole building without waiting for the officials, who had purposely delayed their arrival, and then built a mihrab (a niche indicating the direction to Mecca) in its place and called for prayer. This did not last long, for the sultan, who felt his authority threatened, ordered the removal of the mihrab, a solution that did not ease the tension.
The populace seized the occasion of certain transformations in Cairo in 1320 to dig around a neighboring church (the Church of al- Zuhri), but did not succeed in causing it to fall by itself or in convincing the amirs to destroy it. This excitation culminated a week later when this church and sixty others all over Egypt were attacked at the same time.
In all these places, the pattern was the same: just after the Friday prayer in important mosques a faqir appealed for an attack and then entered a trance. Outside, people could see the dust and smoke of churches being destroyed and burned and elements of the populace carrying away what they robbed. Details were given by al-Maqrizi about the eruption and the consequences of the noninterference of the authorities: the spoliation, the assaults, the enslavement of nuns, and so on.
Al-Maqrizi described how the officials lingered in applying the orders of the sultan before convincing him not to punish the populace. This was why the appeals of his personal treasurer, Qadi Karim al-Din, a converted Copt, to punish the instigators were futile and did nothing but increase the anger of the rigorists, other high officials, and the population against him. The repeated direct attack of rigorists, historians, and, in particular, al-Maqrizi on that converted Copt underlines a certain development in beliefs concerning the conditions of conversion to Islam (see EGYPT, ISLAMIZATION OF). Apparently, pronouncing the two essential formulas concerning the divinity of Allah and the Prophet was no longer considered a sufficient act of faith in these moments of tension, as if the rigorists could not forget or forgive the past of the converts.
So it was not only a matter of jealousy between other high officials and the converted treasurer or of the usual hatred by the population for the persons responsible for the fiscal system. Polemic and sarcastic poems circulated in Cairo at that time about the genuineness and the validity of conversions, an atmosphere that explains why the sultan’s treasurer was publicly attacked in the streets of Cairo. No wonder that this development prepared for the new measures applied by rigorists during the next crisis, in the year 1354, when they obliged new converts to undergo confinement in mosques and a total physical and juridicial isolation from their background.
This consensus and the fact that the historians were far from being impartial make one of the recorded consequences of this crisis difficult to judge. Al-Maqrizi relates in detail how fire broke out in several places in Cairo a month after the events, burning and destroying many storehouses and buildings such as mosques, madrasas (schools), and even houses and offices of high officials. This last reference was given by al-Maqrizi to justify the people’s suspicion that the Christians were responsible for it, as well as the assertion that monks were arrested while about to start, or after having started, fires.
They are even said to have confessed that other monks were behind the plan. But the fact that fire broke out in the house and office of the treasurer in question, the only high official who opposed the rigorists and advocated punishment of the arsonists, seems to create doubt about the veracity of the accusation and of the confessions.
These circumstances make it difficult to draw historical conclusions about the crisis. Was it after all an act of some exasperated monks who were trying to avenge the destruction of the churches or could one see in these fires another plan of the rigorists to stir up the population against the Copts, to justify the harsh measures that they were pushing for and that were strictly applied after the fires? Al-Maqrizi and other historians wrote about these measures and especially about the point of interest here, namely, the fact that many churches in Upper Egypt were transformed into mosques.
This question, which cannot be easily or definitely answered, is important because of the historical significance of the conclusions one could draw about an eventual change in the outlines of the response of Copts to crises. Coptic history plainly shows that in other more or less similar crises Copts maintained the same peaceful demeanor they had always adopted. When one reads through Coptic history, one can easily characterize the attitude and reaction of the church in moments of tension and crisis: the patriarchs and the clergy always preferred to endure difficulties and asked people for more prayers and to turn the other cheek. This attitude often succeeded. It moderated, if not disarmed, the zeal of rigorists and isolated them as much as possible from the peaceful mass of Egyptians and from moderate governors, who would finally agree to ease the tough measure by one means or another.
An interesting detail is to be found in the relation of the events by al-Maqrizi. When the patriarch was told about the confessions of the monks, he wept and said, “Insolent Christians who wanted to act like insolent Muslims who destroyed churches.” He accepted the harsh and expensive measure imposed upon him. The excitation slowly calmed down.
Thus, if it is true that monks were responsible for the fires, one should wonder about the factors that changed the general attitude and rendered these monks “insolent,” adopting an attitude similar to that of the members of the brotherhoods. It is true that both were less bound by the multiple rules binding the established clergy on both sides.
It is also true that monks in the past had played an active role in the protection of Christianity and the beliefs of the church, as in the time of Apa SHENUTE II and of certain patriarchs of Alexandria. Was the sudden destruction of churches a sufficient reason for the monks to take action in the Mamluk period, or was there another change not recorded in history?